The Oregon-based weight loss company Fitera was founded by Chad Tackett in 1996 under the name Global Health and Fitness. His company, which claims to be the oldest internet-based weight loss outfit in existence, provides strategies for weight loss, tools to manage weight goals, recipes, workout suggestions, and an “online community” of support under the banner of its “Fast Track to Fat Loss” program.
In March 2016, Tackett began to advertise that his company was recruiting for a “weight loss study” aimed at demonstrating the efficacy of Fitera's program, a “study” that cost potential subjects $6.95 to join. Health influencers shared Tackett's advertisement as if it were a legitimate recruitment for a real study and were promised a share of any profits so generated as part of an affiliate marketing scheme. On 12 September 2018, after we demonstrated that Tackett's study did not exist, he removed all references to it from the advertisement, admitting to us that “some of the claims made on our ‘weight loss study’ page are misleading.”
Here we will peel away the layers of a particularly egregious scam existing at the intersection of affiliate marketing and phony weight loss science. In doing so, we will expose a series of misrepresentations that were amplified and enabled by the burgeoning world of affiliate marketing and health “influencers”, but whose roots, we later learned, reach into the offices of real medical doctors and into the halls of a leading American research university. It is a tale told in four acts.
1 — URGENT: Volunteers Needed for University Sponsored Weight Loss Study
The online marketplace for dubious health advice is -- more frequently than recognized or admitted -- often motivated by the same profit-driven forces that alternative medicine advocates, blogs, and self-described health “influencers” rail against. Take, for example, the natural health website of Dr. Eric Z (not a medical doctor), who along with his wife “Mama Z” created a company “to help people learn how to use natural remedies, like essential oils, safely and effectively,” and whose posts frequently criticize or call into question the profit motives of “big pharma” while citing conspiracy theorists such as Mike “Health Ranger” Adams.
On 25 August 2018, the mailing list for “Dr. Eric and Mama Z’s Essential Oils” sent out an “URGENT” notice about a “university-sponsored” weight loss study. “Qualified applicants”, the email noted, would “safely lose 10 Lbs” by the end of the following week:
If you thought this pitch looked more like a marketing ploy than recruitment for a legitimate medical study, you would not be alone. In a follow up email from Eric and Mama Z, apparently in response to angry followers who felt scammed, the two took great offense at the suggestion that they would traffic in shady marketing scams, defended the existence of the study, and doubled down on its legitimacy, claiming it was associated with actual doctors as well as the University of Arizona (UA):
Looks like we innocently touched a nerve by sharing our friend Chad's University of Arizona weight loss study during this past week's newsletters. This one (in case you're wondering) --> https://bit.ly/UofAWeightLoss.
We have received LOTS of emails and FB comments from people claiming that this is a scam, and from people saying that they are ashamed at us for promoting such a thing ... We're not scammers. Seriously, we are committed to helping people experience the abundant life Christ spoke of in John 10:10, and we'd never be part of a scam. We're not angry, more hurt that people would think that of us ...
YES, it is University of Arizona sponsored.
YES, there are medical doctors conducting the study.
YES, we actually called the doctor's office listed on this study to verify that it was legit, and they confirmed that it was. (We literally did!) ...
The first two “yes” statements were false, it turned out. The claim that Eric and/or Mama Z called the doctors’ office may be true, but if so, they certainly did not get a straight answer from that office. The doctors there did not appear to have anything to do with any active academic research project.
One other relevant detail: Eric and Mama Z got a cut of the fee charged to join the “study” from every person who signed up for it via links contained in their mailing list -- a fact not disclosed in the email, but which Tackett confirmed to us directly. (Neither Eric nor Mama Z responded to our request for comment.)
2 — Turn On Your Fat Burning Gene!
The unconventional choice to charge participants to join a medical study, the first in a comically lengthy series of red flags on the page that advertised it, was explained as a necessary fee to cover “some of the costs of having an accredited Institutional Review Board (IRB) at a major university monitor, review and participate in our research”:
According to Alan C. Regenberg, the Director of Outreach & Research Support at the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics, charging participants to take part in a study is “not unprecedented,” but “it's somewhat unusual.” The notion that the fees would be used to underwrite the work of an Institutional Review Board (IRB) was a different story, however.
“I’ve never heard anybody frame the cost in terms of having to underwrite having an IRB,” Regenberg told us in a phone interview. And the page misrepresented what an IRB does in the first place, he added:
IRB's aren't actually involved in data accuracy and reliability apart from if they are concerned that the investigators aren't competent when they're reviewing the research ... The IRB exists to look at the question being asked and the investigator's experience and the methods they're using to see if they're all ethically appropriate and feasible and appropriate in other ways, scientifically appropriate.
Other red flags made in the study's advertisement were not limited to misinformation about IRBs: the advertisement also made explicit promises about what joining the study would mean for participants. “Let me state BOLDLY and CLEARLY,” Tackett promised, “You simply CANNOT FAIL on our program and we’ve intentionally created this study to prove it.”
It is highly unethical (and logically incongruous) to promise any specific result through participation in a study. Still, Fitera's page (like so many weight loss come-ons before it) made a series of grand claims about what their program was capable of: that participants would be losing weight while still being able to eat their favorite foods, no matter what their age or body type, and so on. By following their simple instructions, the advertisement stated, Fitera could teach anyone to “turn on” or “turn off” a genetic switch Tackett variously referred to as the “fat burning gene” or the “skinny gene” (although mention of the latter appeared to be motivated solely by its utility as a pun).
While the concept of a genetic mechanism that promotes “burning fat” has existed in obesity literature for nearly a decade, Tackett misrepresented the science behind it completely, and his “Fast Track to Fat Loss” program, which we had access to after paying $6.95 and providing basic details such as age, weight, goals, and past efforts with weight loss, made no mention of the concept and did not provide any information on how a human could affect that genetic mechanism. "Eat healthy and exercise" would be the TL;DR version of Fitera's pitch.
In one of the first emails we received after signing up for the weight loss study, we received an offer for a limited time opportunity to sample Tackett’s “Fit Freeze” high-protein ice cream for free. According to that email, Tackett “spent 12 years, and $100,382.97 on research and development, to create a formula that's the perfect balance of delicious flavor and ice cream texture.”
3 — In Other Words, You’re in Very Good Hands
Despite the self-evident scientific deficiencies and the obvious evidence that Fitera's “study” was a pseudoscientific marketing ploy, two medical doctors in private practice, Stan Adamek and Michael Phelps of Bridgeport Family Medicine in Oregon, were listed as the “Study Directors.” The advertisement even included a picture of Chad “reviewing the research” with these doctors (check out those charts!):
We reached out to Adamek and Phelps, both of whom are family doctors and ostensibly uninvolved in any ongoing academic research. While Adamek and Phelps did not respond to our multiple requests for comment, we do know that they forwarded one of our requests to Tackett. In that email, which was included at the bottom of a message Tackett forwarded back to us, Phelps asked Tackett to remove their names from his advertisement, evidently unaware that the “study” was still in process:
We recently received the following email [from Snopes]. We have also gotten a few calls recently asking if we are a part of this weight loss program. As we haven’t heard from you in a while we aren’t sure if this is still something you are actively involved in. Our preference at this point would be for you to remove us from your website as we don’t want to mislead anyone if any of the statements on your site are not true.
Tackett contacted us after Phelps made the request referenced above of him. “I’d first like to admit that some of the claims made on our ‘weight loss study’ page are misleading and should be revised or taken down entirely,” he said via email. “We’ve messed up in this respect and we sincerely want to make this right -- as quickly as possible.” The study advertisement, it bears repeating, has been online since March 2016.
In that email, though, Tackett claimed that a legitimate effort to build a study had existed at some point, but over time “the project became much more focused on the marketing and less on the study itself.” With respect to Drs. Adamek and Phelps, Tackett told us in a follow-up email that they were there to add “credibility” -- a distant cry from their purported role of “study directors”:
Basically, they serve as added credibility -- doctors that have reviewed our entire program and recommend it to their patients. They have not been compensated, other than their patients having access to our program.
We are not entirely clear on whether these two doctors played any actual role in the alleged “study,” and neither are the doctors themselves, evidently. If we were not in the "very good hands" of these two doctors, then whose hands were we in? Tackett's first email to us made no mention of these doctors and claimed that:
We initially set out to conduct a real study. We worked with two doctors/researchers (from the University of Arizona) -- who have extensive experience conducting studies -- to set up the study, get IRB approval and guidance, submit a grant to Grants.gov (so that we could offer everything to participants for free), and ensure that all information collected was accurate and reliable.
Mariette Marsh, the Director of the Human Subjects Protection Program which would grant such approval at the University of Arizona, told us in response to our inquiry that the university has nothing to do with Chad Tackett or Fitera:
This is not an activity that is being conducted at or by the University of Arizona and we are not the IRB of record for anyone else conducting this study ... It is not appropriate to charge IRB fees back to participants, and it is not acceptable to ‘promise’ anything as a matter of participating in a study. We are an accredited IRB and would not approve such language.
4 — The Response Was Overwhelming – Far Better Than Anything We’ve Ever Seen.
Still, when challenged on his claim that a university had actually signed off on his study, Tackett told us that:
We have extensive documentation of the advice given from these hired doctors/researchers, including correspondence with our web programmers to implement their advice in making all study participant information confidential, reliable, and unbiased. I’m happy to share this with you. We also have signed consulting agreements with these doctors/researchers and the IRB approved the review of the de-identified data by the doctors/researchers.
To Tackett’s credit, he did provide us with extensive documentation attesting to the fact that he paid professor Douglas Taren, the Associate Dean for Academic Affairs and a Professor of Public Health at the University of Arizona -- as well as Taren’s wife, Myra Muramoto, a medical doctor and the head of the University of Arizona’s Family and Community Medicine department -- consulting fees, ostensibly with the goal of creating a legitimate study.
But far from demonstrating that he made a good faith effort at designing a study, the correspondence Tackett provided to us (which spanned a period from 14 August 2015 to 9 September 2016) shows that he was myopically focused on the appearance of legitimacy, and that he either willfully or neglectfully ignored several messages informing him that his brief collaboration with Taren et al did not mean that his study was approved of, or in any way sponsored by, the University of Arizona.
The University of Arizona did approve Professor Taren’s use of any data given to him by Tackett so long as it followed HIPAA guidelines for removing personal identifying information, but that was a far cry from what Tackett claimed came of the collaboration. On 21 April 2016, Mariette Marsh (to whom we reached out about the study) told Tackett that he was misrepresenting the status of their project:
The UA IRB approved the review of de-identified data by Dr. Taren only. IRB approval was not given to the company [Fitera] for collection of the data and use of the UA name is not permitted on any company materials or distribution related to the study. The UA IRB also is not guiding or instructing how you collect your data to begin with, as that was not part of our review or determination.
At this time, if the UA logos have been taken down then that is sufficient. I, however, really question whether the project needs IRB oversight from another IRB (there are plenty of commercial IRBs that would be able to provide a review). If the company thinks the UA IRB approval covers their actions then that is incorrect. We are only covering Dr. Taren.
Despite this fairly clear rebuke, Tackett’s advertisement claimed official IRB approval up until the time of our reporting. It appears that Tackett and Taren’s collaboration slowly melted into oblivion after this alleged miscommunication. “I consulted with him for a short time period to advise him on how to measure the outcomes of his work,” Taren told us by email. “I have never received data or analyzed data from him.”
Tackett’s motivation, from the beginning, was clearly financial. Based on a 27 August 2015 email Tackett sent to Taren, the “processing fee” notion evidently came to him before he had any idea what an IRB was, and was inspired by the “overwhelming” response to a feeler email he had put out:
As I mentioned in our call, the response we received to the recent “interested in participating in a weight loss study?” email we sent out was overwhelming -- far better than anything we’ve ever seen.
So it got us thinking -- instead of selling our program for $47, we could give it away when they sign-up for our new weight loss study at just $7 for a study “processing fee” ... But we don’t want to just say we’re doing a study without really conducting one that is accurate, reliable, and implemented in a way that people in your field would consider “legitimate”.
The professors suggested several possible ways forward, including applying for grants and meeting to hash out details of how one conducts a real study. Throughout this process, Tackett frequently asked when he would be allowed to say he was working on a university-sponsored study. “Could we get a price quote from you on how much this consult might cost to guide us through conducting a ‘legitimate, but bare bones’ study in-house?” Tacket asked Taren in August 2015. After drafting a contract with Taren, Tacket asked Muramoto if the fact that he had paid the two meant that he could use the University of Arizona’s name:
I’m still a little vague about what is meant by the ‘U of Arizona subcontract’ bit, but if you could confirm in writing (i.e. an email) with Doug that this clause will allow us to use the UofA name/brand on our study enrollment page, that should be fine.
“Once we have a study completed,” Taren replied, “you can easily state that the study was conducted with the University of Arizona.” Evidently, Tackett took this to mean he could claim that a theoretical, never-initiated (let alone completed) study could claim to be “university sponsored.” Responding to our view that his emails demonstrated his idea for a study was clearly rooted in profit, and that the idea of charging for a study preceded any talk of actually conducting a study, Tacket told us via email that we were “absolutely right”:
The offer/sales pitch idea came first, and then we set out to make the study a real thing. We have all of the data we were advised to gather as part of the study, but we haven't analyzed it yet, as we have not resumed the process since things fell through initially.
“While we realize this does not atone for the 2 years+ of the offer being live without having a study fully set up,” he told us, “we are going to be updating the page to no longer include the study before the end of the week ... As I mentioned in my initial email, we want to correct our mistakes as quickly as possible."
Epilogue — They'll Be Thinking of Things Like This Instead of Legitimate Studies
While this "study" deceit may be small potatoes compared to other forms of corporate fraud, it highlights with comic effect the absurdly low bar set for material shared by an influencer when there is (as was the case for Eric and Mama Z) a financial motivation to share it.
This and similar scams also could have broader effects on the public trust of science, Johns Hopkins bioethicist Alan C. Regenberg told us:
In addition to people being potentially harmed, this sort of thing poses a risk of harm to research as an endeavor because research with human subjects is really important, they learn a lot of things from it, and moving ahead with people participating and human subjects research particularly more than minimal risk research requires trust, transparency, [and] credibility, and these sort of fraudulent activities eat directly away at that.
“It erodes trust and might discourage people from participating in research in the future,” Regenberg said. People will be “thinking of things like this when they're thinking of participation instead of legitimate studies.”